Masooma Ranalvi is the founder of WeSpeakOut, an organization working to end FGM/C in India.
My mutilation happened when I was 7-years-old. That moment of my life is a horrible memory, shrouded in mystery and silence. For many years I blocked it out.
I only realized what had happened to me when, much later in life, I came across an article about FGM in Africa and I drew the connection with my own experience. I didn’t have the courage at that point to accept it had happened to me. I wanted to push it away.
I only got the courage and inspiration to share my story when my daughter was 20-years-old and going to college. We were having a conversation about it and something in me felt that silence was not the right thing.
I spoke up
I wrote a blog about the practice. Sharing my story with the world was a turning point for me and the campaign. After it was published online, I got a huge response from women in the community who connected with it.
Very spontaneously I set up a WhatsApp group with five people I knew and without planning it we created a safe space. Women started talking about an experience that they had never shared before. Our group grew to 50 women from all over the world, Australia, America, Africa, the UK. How they all joined I have no clue, people told others and it multiplied.
We spoke out
That was in 2015 and we thought let’s take it up as a campaign. We need to speak out about FGM, we need to have conversations, share our stories, understand the practice, know more.
We have become organized. WeSpeakOut is now registered as an organization. We have knocked on the doors of the government, started a Change.org petition that has over 200,000 signatures, launched a Supreme Court Case in India, and published a research study.
We’ve put the issue of FGM in India on the world map and had tremendous support from civil society, women’s groups, and LGBTQ+ led organizations. Thanks to our efforts, many more people are aware of the issue and we have forced the conversation.
Equality Now provided us with a global perspective so we can learn lessons from the global movement. It has been very positive to move outside of a narrow view.
Speaking out in the Bohra community
The Bohra community is rich and well educated so the world sees it as progressive but it is far from this. It is very patriarchal and women are relegated in a big way. There is complete control over every aspect of a woman’s life – her name, education, the clothes she wears, who she marries, what she has profession – all elements are tightly controlled.
Everything has to be seen through that lens and we cannot address FGM in isolation. People are not willing to openly dissent because they fear a social boycott. There is a lot of fear in the community and we have to face that fear. People don’t want to speak out publically about what is happening.
The first step was the toughest
I’m one of the few Bohra women who will show their face and openly speak out against the practice of FGM. My father was part of the reformist movement and a lot of people turned away from him. We have been socially boycotted by the community and my family has been very supportive of me. Because I have already been in that space, the fear I feel is not so great, but for others I know it is a massive issue.
The first step was the toughest, breaking the silence was really difficult but once I had done that, it was relatively easier. After the story was out, the kind of support I got from women made me feel like we have the potential to change things. As one individual, I can’t do it but together we can. There has been tremendous support amongst the sisterhood, amazing women, amazing stories, inspirational, very spirited, and some of them I have never met in person.
My mother thought it was the right thing
When I was cut, thinking back about my mother and grandmother, I had a momentary feeling of betrayal and anger. My mother knew what it meant to be cut so why did she send me. But I was too small to hold onto this and it ebbed away.
Later on in life, I realized that my mother and grandmother thought it was good for me and the right thing. You don’t want to harm the child or do something irreparable both emotionally and physically. They were made to believe it is normal, if you don’t do it to your daughter it is abnormal.
I don’t hold a grudge. I think there is a lack of understanding and a deep, misguided sense that you have to do it for your religion, culture, tradition, and for the good of your child. We need to make the community understand what harm it does to girls.
Shedding the yoke of silence
This started with my personal story but I wouldn’t restrict it to my personal experience. We are living in a time where women have really found their voices and I am privileged to be alive now. 30 years ago it would not be possible. I was also silent but today you can garner people with you and take things forward together. It is about the time you are living and the power of women, we have been shackled in silence and internalized a lot of oppression, the moment has come to shed the yoke.
I can see things are moving and positive change is happening. So many have stopped doing it and the number of people saying no is definitely on the rise.
There is no place for FGM in India
My message to the Indian government is to recognize FGM exists here and it is a discriminatory practice that harms women and girls, and a medieval attempt to control their sexuality. There is no place in a country that claims not to discriminate on the grounds of gender, and to have equal rights for women. FGM is a violation of India’s own laws as well as global human rights laws, and more than anything, it is a crime.
I also believe that although FGM in India is an issue for the Bohra community and in the broader sense it needs to be understood as an act of violence against women and children.
To the international community, please embrace India as one of the practicing countries and put in as much information, energy, and funding into supporting the campaign to end FGM here.